Having just re-read Richard Feynman's 20-year old autobiography titled Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman! (Adventures of a Curious Character) I thought it makes for a great little Nanowerk Spotlight leading into the weekend - and it won't be about nanotechnology. Feynman's 1959 lecture "Plenty of room at the bottom" is probably the most famous and most quoted physics speech ever and it is the one thing that most non-scientists associate with his name. Feynman, who received the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1965 for his work on on quantum electrodynamics, participated in the Manhattan Project and was a member of the panel that investigated the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster in 1986. He taught physics, first at Cornell and later at the California Institute of Technology. In typical Feynman fashion, a major factor in his decision of chosing CalTech over other institutions was a desire to live in a mild climate, a goal he chose while having to put snow chains on his car's wheels in the middle of a snowstorm in Ithaca, New York. What makes this book such a gem is the weird and wacky collection of anecdotes that Feynman serves up when leading us through his childhood, education and career. Whether he learns how to pick locks and crack safes, plays the bongo drums in an orchestra, gets a commission to paint a naked female toreadore, or competes in a samba competition during Carnival in Rio, the book is not about physics, but the physicist. Underneath all these hilarious stories, though, are recurring leitmotifs of curiosity, tenacity, and total disrespect for ideas that have no grounding in science. For everyone who is quoting Feynman's speech, or who is reading it, this autobiography goes a long way explaining the unconventional mind behind his revolutionary ideas.
Forecasting technological developments is notoriously tricky. Many futurologists choose a safe 50 to 100 years timeframe to make sure they are dead, and the book royalties spent, when the forecasts are due (or they skip the science part altogether and write science fiction). A few months ago we introduced you to a "Detailed Roadmap of the 21st Century", a year by year bullet point list of notable advances expected to happen in the 21st century. There is no wiggling out - the names of the people or organization making a forecast is attached to it. Already there are some missed forecasts - 8 out of 13 since 2001. Then there is another type of forecast, favored by some consultants and investment advisors, that attempts to predict the dollar value of product markets within a timeframe much shorter than that of futurologists and sci-fi writers. Although this group of forecasters develops elaborate models and methodologies, the outcome is equally dubious. A third type of forecast might be the most useful; here, the input comes from the group of people who live and breath the technology every day - the companies developing, building and selling products and services. Of course, the focus of this type of forecast necessarily becomes increasingly blurry as well as it looks into the future, but it tends to avoid the hyperbole and a lot of the speculative nature of other types of forecast. A recent UK study provides a purely industry-led forecast for nanotechnologies and examines industry's existing opinion of the economic potential for nanotechnologies.
"Canadians spy on U.S. with nanotechnology coins!" You might remember this hilarious story that made the rounds a few weeks ago. The U.S. Defense Department had issued an espionage warning after U.S. Army contractors traveling in Canada had filed confidential espionage accounts about Canadian coins as "anomalous" and "filled with something man-made that looked like nanotechnology." It just exemplifies how the term "nanotechnology" gets thrown around and misused for all kinds of purposes. Just because something is really small doesn't mean it has to do with nanotechnology. Of course, here at Nanowerk we sometimes fall into the same trap and use "nanotechnology" in a story headline just to make it catchier, even if the underlying story is not so much about a "technology" but rather a nanoscale phenomenon. Today's Spotlight therefore takes a step back and looks some of the various nanoscale phenomena that make new technologies - nanotechnologies - possible and that hold the key to many technological advances that lie ahead of us.
Nano-this and nano-that. These days it seems you need the prefix "nano" for products or applications if you want to be either very trendy or incredibly scary. This "nanotrend" has assumed "mega" proportions: Patent offices around the world are swamped with nanotechnology-related applications; investment advisors compile nanotechnology stock indices and predict a coming boom in nanotechnology stocks with misleading estimates floating around of a trillion-dollar industry within 10 years; pundits promise a new world with radically different medical procedures, manufacturing technologies and solutions to environmental problems; nano conferences and trade shows are thriving all over the world; scientific journals are awash in articles dealing with nanoscience discoveries and nano- technology breakthroughs. Nanotechnology has been plagued by a lot of hype, but cynicism and criticism have not been far behind. Science fiction writers exploit fears of nanorobots turning into killers; the media can run amok when news about potential health problems with nanoproducts surface (as happened last year with a product recall for a bathroom cleaner in Germany). Some see doomsday scenarios of molecular self-assembly turning the world into "grey goo." The emerging polarization of opinions on nanotechnology is reminiscent of controversies about genetically modified plants or nuclear energy. Vague promises of a better life are met by equally vague, generalized fears about a worse future. These debates have some aspects in common: the subject is complex and not easy to explain; there is no consensus on risks and benefits; scientists and corporations seem able to proceed unchecked, and it is unclear who is in control.
Experts and the public generally differ in their perceptions of risk. While this might be due to social and demographic factors, it is generally assumed by scientists who conduct risk research that experts' risk assessments are based more strongly on actual or perceived knowledge about a technology than lay people's risk assessments. In the case of nanotechnology, surveys show that most people are not familiar with it. The public perception of an emerging technology will have a major influence on the acceptance of this technology and its commercial success. If the public perception turns negative, potentially beneficial technologies will be severely constrained as is the case for instance with gene technology. It seems plausible that the evaluation of new technologies, such as nanotechnologies, is guided by people's theories and values. For instance, people for whom the technological revolution is associated with positive outcomes - and who are not afraid of possible negative side effects of technological progress - may assess nanotechnology applications more positively than people for whom negative effects outweigh positive effects. Researchers in Switzerland conducted two studies which examined how lay people and experts perceived various nanotechnology applications and how companies address the public's concerns.
The nanoworld cannot be portrayed with a camera, nor can it be seen even with the most powerful optical microscope. Only special instruments have access to images of the nanoworld. A fascinating new exhibition "Blow-up: images from the nanoworld" in Modena/Italy shows the work of scientists associated with the National Center on Nanostructures and Biosystems at Surfaces in Modena, Italy, headed by Elisa Molinari. The images have been manipulated in a variety of ways by photographer, Lucia Covi. Covi is particularly sensible to the aesthetic paradigms of scientists: her gaze thus grasps essential aspects of the portrayed objects and allows her to shine them with a new light, as they are revealed now. This exhibition brings to the public images that are usually accessible to few, because they remain confined in the research laboratories, on the scientists' desks. The images are stills that, over time, have been put together from different framings, and that we can look at thanks to the mediation of machines. Some of them represent exceptional events, outstanding results that ended on the cover of scientific journals. Others were born from everyday research. All of them show a landscape that is being unraveled by scientists, scenery that is very different from the one we can see in the media, largely obtained through computer graphics and "artistic" interpretations, when not directly borrowed from science fiction.
Nano-this and nano-that. Nanotechnology moves into the public consciousness. This 'nanotrend' has assumed 'mega' proportions: Patent offices around the world are swamped with nanotechnology-related applications; investment advisors compile nanotechnology stock indices and predict a coming boom in nanotechnology stocks with estimates floating around of a trillion-dollar industry within 10 years; pundits promise a new world with radically different medical procedures, manufacturing technologies and solutions to environmental problems; nano conferences and trade shows are thriving all over the world; scientific journals are awash in articles dealing with nanoscience discoveries and nanotechnology breakthroughs. Nanotechnology has been plagued by a lot of hype, but cynicism and criticism have not been far behind. The media can run amok when news about potential health problems with nanoproducts surface (as recently happened with a product recall for a bathroom cleaner in Germany). These discussions around nanotechnology epitomize the contemporary processes of making the future present. An interesting approach to dealing with the lack of consensus in the views on nanotechnology identifies eight main nodes of nanotechnology discourse and describes these "islands" of discussion, examines their interactions and degrees of isolation from each other.
Superhydrophobic materials have surfaces that are extremely difficult to wet with water and therefore are of considerable interest for various industrial applications. Researchers have unlocked the mechanism that makes some leaves either superhydrophobic or hydrophilic, opening the way to creating self cleaning surfaces and interfaces that will not stick. Potential industrial applications are self cleaning windows and windshields, hard disks and magnetic tapes (for data storage) and MEMS and NEMS devices with no stiction issues.